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NHTSA’s Tesla questions prompt broader concerns

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) is the federal agency most directly tasked with minimizing the risk that road travelers will suffer property damage and/or physical harm before reaching their destinations. The agency pursues this mission via recalls, regulations and educational campaigns. 

Over the past decade or so, the NHTSA’s efforts concerning distracted driving have been significant. Yet, because the technology that is inspiring so much driver distraction keeps evolving, the NHTSA’s approach to this hazard continues to evolve as well. For example, it recently demanded that Tesla account for a programming approach that could encourage – rather than discourage – driver inattention. 

Driver inattention in an increasingly “driverless” age

Auto technology that allows motorists to enable “driverless” capabilities is becoming more widespread. As it does, federal regulators charged with ensuring public safety have a vested interest in questioning the potential hazards that may be associated with such systems. This interest is what inspired the NHTSA to demand that Tesla turn over information related to a configuration for some of its models known as “Elon mode.”

Elon mode apparently extends beyond an autopilot function to eliminate a prompt that reminds motorists to keep their hands on the wheel. The agency is, understandably concerned about how many vehicles have ever had this function enabled. The concern is worthy of investigation on its own, but it also prompts additional questions about how “self-driving” functions may impact safety more broadly.

Drivers are so often told that distraction behind the wheel could result in catastrophic consequences. So, who is truly to blame if technology encourages such distraction? Unfortunately, it will likely be lawsuits filed by injury victims affected as a result of tech-driven distractions that will help to settle this debate.